Watsonville High senior Danna Perez turns ‘grief into hope’

Watsonville High School senior Danna Perez
After a tragic 2019 accident, Watsonville High graduating senior Danna Perez started a club at school supporting students experiencing grief.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Watsonville High graduating senior Danna Perez co-founded the Hope Club as a sophomore after a tragic accident in 2019. Now, she plans to go to Cabrillo College to become a bilingual and bicultural nurse for patients like her.

Watsonville High School senior Danna Perez is about to turn 18, and she’s also just weeks away from graduating. She’s looking forward to going to Cabrillo College to embark on a nursing career.

Like many graduating this year, she’s ready for her move into adulthood.

“It’s nice to see my goals become a reality. I think that’s what I’m the most excited about,” she said, sitting in the living room of a home she shares with her mother and brother. “And I’m excited to start a new chapter of my life, because I feel like that’s something I need right now. New beginnings.”

Yet her bittersweet feelings are a constant companion.

Like many graduating seniors, she’ll also miss her classes, her friends and life as a Watsonville High student. But it’s the memories of one of her best friends, Vanessa Zamora, that still stop her now and then.

“She would always give good advice,” Perez said. “She would just be there for you for those simple things.”

On June 22, 2019, a drunk driver — driving a boat — struck Zamora and Perez as they jet-skied the Modesto Reservoir. Zamora died six days later. Perez survived, but with broken bones that put her in a wheelchair for four months.

“I wish she was here for our graduation — we would walk across the stage,” said Perez. “And to just see what she would have done [after graduating] too.”

Three years later, Perez is still learning to cope with the loss of Zamora. She says her mother, her friends and Watsonville High counselor Daisy Nuñez have helped her to get through the hardest times. (Lookout profiled Nunez’s work in the face of COVID-related grief here.)

With their support, Perez took her sadness and applied it. She has maintained good grades, committed to becoming a nurse — and started a club at school supporting students experiencing grief.

Nuñez remembers when she first met Perez. Perez came into Nuñez’s office in the fall of 2019, still in her wheelchair. From that moment on, she felt Perez’s resilience.

Danna Perez's mortarboard reads, "long story short, I survived"
Danna Perez’s mortarboard reads, “long story short, I survived.”
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“She came in with a smile,” Nuñez recalled. “And this openness to return to school.”

To help Perez process her grief, Nuñez met with her on a weekly basis. By November, Perez decided to create a memorial for Zamora. At that point, 14 of Zamora’s friends came together to process the grief.

“They worked really closely, they were like a small family,” Nuñez said. “Danna was the person leading these efforts.”

With a donation from Watsonville-based Graniterock Construction and Building Materials, and funds from community members, the newly formed Hope Club installed a memorial stone and a bench in December 2019.

While the pandemic put a temporary pause on Hope Club’s goals to support students experiencing grief, activities picked up in the fall of 2021 with the return to school. Students raised money and gifted baskets to people from Watsonville High who had lost a loved one. For Dia de los Muertos, Hope Club students set up an altar for Zamora and other lost loved ones at the Watsonville City Plaza.

Looking back on her past three years, Perez is thankful for the support she received from her family, friends and people like Nuñez who told her it was OK to feel all the complicated feelings.

“Grief is a roller coaster. Because there’s a lot of ups and downs. You’re fine one moment and the next you’re just remembering everything,” she said. “You’re sad, you’re crying, and you don’t even know why.”

Nuñez helped her realize something that continues to help her in the grieving process.

“Something that I feel really stuck with me was, her telling me to always allow myself to feel everything and to not shut it out,” Perez said. “I feel like that’s helped me and her telling me I’m crying tears of love.”

For years, and partly influenced by “Grey’s Anatomy,” Perez wanted to pursue a career in the medical field. But it wasn’t until the accident and her time in the hospital that she became certain.

Perez doesn’t remember the accident, but she remembers waking up.

“I just don’t recall anything. I woke up and then I just remember the ambulance, the helicopters and the feelings of being afraid, scared, vulnerable,” she said. “And then being at the hospital, by myself.”

While Zamora’s family was there, the hospital staff didn’t allow them to accompany Perez until her mom arrived.

“The hospital didn’t let Vanessa’s family be with me because they weren’t my family,” Perez said.

Perez’s mother, Rosa Marquez, remembers the extremely difficult time, from finding out what happened that day to the months of recovery.

“I didn’t know what to do,” Marquez said in Spanish. “My sister and my brother-in-law went with me. We got there around 9 p.m., and I needed to be there to sign paperwork so she could get surgery.”

Watsonville High School senior Danna Perez and her mother, Rosa Marquez
Watsonville High School senior Danna Perez and her mother, Rosa Marquez.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Her daughter had sustained a broken tibia, a broken kneecap and a sprained wrist, and her mother was distraught.

Complicating things further, no bilingual hospital staff at Modesto’s Doctors Medical Center could interpret for Marquez. Because her daughter herself wasn’t in a state to translate, eventually a bilingual friend helped her and her daughter understand the medical procedures’ details

“No one was there to explain anything to her,” said Perez. “It was a culture shock to see that not everywhere has someone that speaks Spanish.”

For Perez, that was the moment that she knew that she wanted to become a nurse. She wants to use her Spanish-speaking background to be the nurse that she needed that day.

Now, on the other side of summer, she’s ready to start those studies. And she has help. As a graduating senior of Watsonville High who earned a minimum of a 3.5 GPA, Perez applied for and earned a scholarship from the Community Foundation of Santa Cruz County. She’s one of 31 local seniors who earned either one-time or annually renewable scholarships ranging from $1,000 to $5,000, winning the Hank Garcia Jr. & Family Scholarship award, which is an annually renewable scholarship for $2,000. (For more information on how to apply or how to support the scholarship programs, click here.)

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